By Marlysa D. Gamblin
The post-election transition period, November 2016 to January 2017, is a good time to assess where we are and identify how to move forward on many issues of national concern. At Bread for the World Institute, we believe that there is broad agreement that hunger in the United States is unnecessary and unacceptable. The country suffers when hunger, food insecurity, and extreme poverty weaken our people, families, and communities.
A national poverty rate of nearly 14 percent and a food insecurity rate approaching 13 percent underline the simple truth: too many people in the United States struggle to put food on the table. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) uses more precise definitions to measure food insecurity, but its general definition is that people are food insecure when “consistent access to adequate food is limited by a lack of money and other resources…” The United States is making an extremely slow recovery from the Great Recession, and not everyone has been sharing in that recovery. The incoming president and administration can play a critical leadership role in mobilizing efforts to ensure that everyone in our country both has sufficient nutritious food, and is not anxious about how to get food for today and tomorrow.
The United States and 192 other countries adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015. Among the goals is ending hunger and malnutrition – everywhere – by 2030. The SDG framework makes a compelling case that as governments and communities work toward this and other SDGs, the principle “reach the furthest behind first” should guide them. If we can end hunger and food insecurity among people who are struggling on the margins of our economy and society, we can end it among everyone. And experience tells us that those most in need must come first. Otherwise, chances are that they will simply be left behind again.
Here are four specific steps to put our country on track to achieve food security for all.
STEP 1: RECOGNIZE WHO IS MOST AFFECTED BY HUNGER AND POVERTY IN OUR COUNTRY.
Some people are at least twice as likely to face hunger and extreme poverty as the average U.S. resident. They often belong to one or more of these groups: households led by a single woman, African Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, people with criminal records, and undocumented immigrants.
Here are just a few examples of the data that pinpoint who is most at risk:
- The food insecurity rate of single mothers and their children is 30.3 percent, compared to 12.7 percent of the U.S. population.
- A startling 60 percent of counties where a majority of the residents are Native American have very high food insecurity rates.
- Today, African Americans are paid $1.13 an hour less than white workers were paid back in 1979 – more than 35 years ago.
- Among people in households led by undocumented workers, 24 percent were food insecure, again compared with 12.7 percent of the overall U.S. population.
- The group with the highest rate of food insecurity by far is people returning from prison or jail, at 91 percent.
STEP 2: MAKE A PUBLIC COMMITMENT TO REDUCE HUNGER, FOOD INSECURITY, AND EXTREME POVERTY AMONG COMMUNITIES AT HIGHER RISK.
STEP 3: CREATE A STRATEGY.
We have only enough space here to briefly discuss three key components of an effective strategy, but clearly a country as large and diverse as the United States needs a comprehensive plan to meet a complex goal such as ending hunger and food insecurity. These are three “necessary but not sufficient” components.
a) Increase the number of good jobs that are available to people at higher risk.
Broad possibilities of how to do this include:
- investing in transportation and infrastructure so that people who live in high-poverty areas can get to places where there are good jobs
- developing partnerships and incentives to bring better jobs to low-income neighborhoods
- increasing the minimum wage
- enabling people who are unemployed or underemployed to train for jobs in fields that are expected to grow
- taking steps toward eliminating the pay gaps based on race and gender. This includes better enforcement of anti-discrimination laws. Other examples might be conducting employer salary audits to help identify pay gaps between workers of different races and genders as well as their main causes, or expanding access to better-paid jobs traditionally held by white males, such as the skilled trades
b) Remove barriers to opportunity that confront people at higher risk.
Among the potential ways of accomplishing this are:
- improving the Earned Income Tax Credit to boost the incomes of more low-wage workers, including those who do not have dependent children
- expanding affordable housing to help create more mixed-income neighborhoods
- strengthening “work supports,” or measures that help low-wage workers remain in the workforce by defraying the major expenses associated with working, such as child care and transportation
- better enforcement of labor laws, such as rules on overtime pay and the minimum wage, and of anti-discrimination laws in such areas as employment and housing
- allowing people who have not committed crimes to work regardless of immigration status
- enabling more ex-offenders to obtain jobs — for example, by creating incentives to hire people who have paid their debt to society, and by eliminating federal restrictions on the work licenses and permits they can get
c) Maintain and create targeted initiatives for groups or individuals with unique barriers and needs.
These could include, for example, people in isolated rural areas, including Native American reservations; farmworkers; people in hazardous occupations; victims of domestic violence; people who have disabilities but can do some work; and/or people whose children have disabilities that require full-time care from parents.
STEP 4: ALLOCATE BUDGETARY RESOURCES FOR THE EFFORTS ABOVE.
Each year, the U.S. administration requests from Congress a budget that reflects its policy priorities. Budget proposals should include adequate funding for efforts to remove barriers and strengthen opportunities for people at greater risk of hunger and food insecurity.
To end hunger in the United States, we need to empower those most at risk. The role of government includes recognizing which people are most at risk; making a commitment to reduce hunger, food insecurity, and extreme poverty among these populations; developing an effective strategy to move forward; and allocating budgetary resources to implement this strategy.
Marlysa D. Gamblin is a domestic policy advisor for policy and programs, specific populations at Bread for the World Institute.